One of the most remarkable things for me about the Christmas season is how this is the one time of the year when nearly everyone seems to want to hold tightly to that which is old and familiar. No matter how “post-modern” or sophisticated we like to think of ourselves where the holidays are concerned, the enduring traditions, the wonderful stories, and most especially the beautiful songs of Christmas somehow manage to draw us in in a way that nothing else can.
For instance, as a pastor, I’m very much aware that it’s the music that brings a lot of people back to church this time of year; and I also know that there are a few of you (and you know who you are!) that while you might not sing out very often in worship during the rest of the year, today you were out there in the congregation “Noel-ing” with the best of them!
And I understand that, because there’s just something about singing Christmas carols that takes us back! But more than simply nostalgia, these songs have a way of reconnecting us to the true reason for the season – the wonder of Jesus’ birth, the enduring nature of the Christmas gospel and of God’s unending faithfulness. The First Noel… O Come, All Ye Faithful… Silent Night… these are songs that speak to our hearts – even in the worst of times in our lives, sometimes just singing these songs of angels, shepherds and wise men can restore in us a spirit of wonder, love and praise; transported for a moment to stable and manger, embracing the promise of love coming into the world, and celebrating its fulfillment in the birth of the Christ Child.
And the best part; you don’t have to be a world-class singer for it to happen! That’s what I love about Christmas songs; I mean, what other time of year would you hear someone who otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead singing anywhere else but the shower suddenly belting out these songs with all the heart and soul of a Pavarotti (or a Michael Buble)! Ultimately, it’s all about Spirit; letting God’s love and joy get through in such a way that it can do no less than burst forth from us, “pitchy” notes and all!
Actually, friends, there’s great precedent for this kind of joyous, unfettered singing, and we find it in Mary herself, who in our reading this morning, has given us what is arguably the very first Christmas song. Traditionally, this passage from Luke’s gospel has become known as the Magnificat – that comes from the Latin translation of the first verse: Magnificat anima mea dominum, meaning, “My soul magnifies… [or glorifies] …the Lord.” Biblically speaking, this passage is both literally and figuratively a Psalm: a song of prayer and praising unto the Lord, one of literally hundreds that are found throughout scripture – but such is the power of this particular song that these verses have been set to music more often than any other passage in the Bible, more than even the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s prayer. In fact, there was a 19th century organist and composer of sacred music by the name of Cesar Franck who literally wrote 63 different musical settings for this one piece of scripture, and had planned to write at least a hundred before he died! There’s something inherently powerful about these verses, and I think it comes down to what we’ve been talking about here; about how in the face of unspeakable joy the only good and proper response always ends up being… to sing the news!
And that’s what Mary did when she heard the angel’s news of Jesus’ coming.
Every year as I come back to it, I come away thinking that Luke’s story of the “annunciation,” as it’s often called, is another passage that has become so familiar to our ears and such a sentimental part of the nativity story that we’ve risked losing a bit of its radical nature – remember, this news of a baby’s coming (and not just any baby, mind you, but one who “will be called the Son of God” ) is being delivered to, of all people, a poor, unmarried peasant girl living in an occupied, backwoods country far from the seat of power.
To say that this news would create an uncertain future for Mary was an understatement, because make no mistake, in biblical times, the mere rumor of such of thing was to create a scandal – and yet, here was the angel of God saying to Mary that not only had she “found favor with God,” but that she had been chosen to bear a child of the Holy Spirit, because “nothing will be impossible with God.”
It’s an amazing miracle – but what’s almost as incredible is that Mary believes it. Unlike old Zechariah who we talked about here a couple of weeks ago, who also gets divine news of a baby but does the math and won’t accept the truth of it, here’s Mary who unaccountably, bravely, and faithfully says yes. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she answers. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
And then, once the angel departs from her, what does she do?
Actually, Luke tells us that Mary “went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country” to see her cousin Elizabeth – but just as soon as the two women compare baby news, Mary is so filled up with the incredible joy of it all that she literally breaks out in song: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it: “I’m bursting with God news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.”
Read through the “Magnificat” again, friends, and what you’ll find is a song filled with wonder, gratitude and great hope – and what I really love about this passage is that it works on two levels. On one level, Mary is singing about her own joy about what is to happen to her; she sings here about what God, who she calls her “Savior,” has done for her in the gift of this wonderful child growing inside of her; how “the Mighty One has done great things” for her. But more than just a song of personal praise, Mary goes on to sing about what God is doing for the world in the birth of this child – and it is incredible.
This is a song about a God who brings down rulers from their thrones, while lifting up the humble; about a God who “has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty,” all the while embracing “his chosen child, Israel” with mercies piled high. What we have in this song is a God of love and justice turning the world as we know it upside down – the proclamation that God has seen the world as it is, and has decided to bring that world around to where it should be – from the bottom up, and the top down!
This is radical and revolutionary thinking, and it’s no wonder that throughout history, those words have resonated in such a way to put the world’s powerful on notice – the story goes that Martin Luther was so convinced of the truth of this song that he wrote out the words and sent it to the German Prince John Frederick as a warning, and a standard for “faithful government;” even today, are still places in Latin America, for instance, that have banned this passage of scripture to be read in Christian worship because it’s too subversive in nature!
And the reason for this is that at the heart of this song of Mary is the undeniable, unsettling yet life-giving truth that God is alive and moving and working in the world to create a new reality; coming into the very places of our lives where exists our fear and our grief, as well as the injustices of the world, its hopelessness and its own sinfulness! So you can see how the joy of such a thing could do nothing else but burst forth from Mary’s voice and her heart! And indeed, before long others would be drawn into that same joy – her fiancée Joseph; a rather motely group of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night; three wise “magi” traveling from a far eastern country – all of them swept up in the power and grace of a promised encounter with God, in the guise of tiny infant born in the cold darkness of a stable.
And on this Sunday before Christmas, this is our gift as well; a God who is alive and well and continues to come to us in the Child of Bethlehem, bringing a song of surprising and transformative love for us and our world. The song is there to be sung; the only question is whether we will claim that song as our own, and if we’ll proclaim it to the world with voices raised! Because if, like Mary before us, we say “yes” to this child – if we make room in our hearts for his coming and thus let our lives flow in service to the Lord – then not only do we find our purpose and joy for living, we also find ourselves swept up into something wonderful and beyond imagining: the promised kingdom of God coming in its fullness.
And what a thing that will be for us to sing about!
Over the years my guitar and I have had the pleasure of leading Christmas sing-a-longs with groups of little children, and, interestingly enough, also at a number of nursing facilities. And I’ve made an interesting discovery – pre-schools and nursing homes have at least one thing in common: when you tell ‘em to sing loud, especially when it involves Christmas songs, they tend to do it! Not to cast aspersions, but let me just say that where singing “Rudolph” is concerned, the older folks can give those little kids a run for their money!
What’s always interesting, though, is just who sings the loudest; it’s not always the ones you expect. Sometimes the most outgoing of people immediately get shy and “clam up” when it comes to singing aloud – they might have the most beautiful voices going, but you’d never know it because for whatever reason, they can’t bring themselves to share it. By the same token, however, there’s always one or two who sing with every bit of energy and volume they can muster – it doesn’t matter if they’re just a tad off key, that their volume has long since moved beyond “singing” and now has approached the level of “screaming;” and that they’re almost always a note or two ahead of everybody else in the room! They’re singing, and the amazing thing is, nobody expects it!
Many years back I sang at a nursery school where there was this little girl who was singing for all she was worth – and the teacher shared with me afterward that the whole staff was amazed by this because ordinarily, this was the little girl who was somewhat shy and distant from the other children and always extremely quiet (I guess I fixed that – because trust me, she weren’t quiet no more!). But how wonderful was that – this little girl was so caught up in the utter joy of singing those great Christmas songs, she’d lost herself in the wonder and in the process found her voice of joy!
Well, beloved, Christmas is coming very soon now, but there are still many songs left to sing – the question is, how loudly will you be singing the news? Have you found your voice of joy yet? There’s still time to find it, you know; what a wonderful thing it would be if it could said of each one of us that this year our souls did magnify the Lord, that our very lives burst forth with singing and dancing the beautiful and surprising song of our Savior God!
So sing out, sing with joy, and friends, sing it loud – for this truly good news of a great, great joy for all the people, “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!”
Thanks be to God! AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry